Eugene Rabkin: You have a close relationship with art. What do you feel when you transpose an artist’s work into your medium?
Ann Demeulemeester: The most important thing about people who make emotionally driven works is that their creations have energy. That pushes me to create something beautiful too. Sometimes I experience a piece of music, or the mood in a painting, something abstract, nothing to do with clothes, which goes right to my heart. That is what I experienced when I saw a Jim Dine exhibition. I felt bewitched. I wanted to relay this emotional impact through my work. I wrote Jim a letter, and two weeks later he was in Antwerp. Jim made an image especially for the collection, and I put it on silk through an inkjet printer. The idea was that instead of putting his photo on your wall, you put it on your body, enwrapping yourself in it.
ER: In the current menswear collection you reference an entire art movement. What attracted you to Dada?
AD: I am very drawn to High Modernism in general and Dadaism in particular. Marcel Duchamp is one of my favorite artists. For this collection, I imagined that Dadaists were alive today, and going on vacation to the South of France. How would they dress? We thought how beautiful and free, how distinguished and chic they would look in a modern and a bit shocking way. I don’t know how they dressed back then, I just envisioned it from seeing their work: the black, the white, the red, the graphic elements. And we wanted to be playful ourselves, like Dadaists. So, we took the famous “DADA” print, but we made the “D” a bit longer, so you can read “DADA” or “PAPA,” or you can read it backwards and see my initials. At the show we played an interview with Marcel Duchamp I found by coincidence.
ER: You primarily work with black and white. Why?
AD: Originally, I had worked a lot on the shape and the cut of the garments, and when I am making a new shape, I don’t want to be distracted by color. Black or white allows me to see the garment in its purest shape. It’s like sculpting – the sculptor does not work with color, he sculpts in plaster. I always make the first version of a garment in black and white. If in the process of making a garment I come to a finishing point, then I don’t feel like I need to add anything, because the garment is exactly to my liking. And this would often happen before thinking of color. It still happens, but I also feel it’s nice to add color too. Since the image of Ann Demeulemeester is clear, we can now experiment more with color and print. Color is also a feeling, and I don’t feel the way I did 10 years ago. Sometimes I feel like concentrating on the purity of the design, or I feel like I need some romanticism, something light and beautiful in its naivete. I look at color in another way – it’s not just a print for a dress. There are emotions in the colors. We make the prints ourselves, and they fit within a certain story.”
ER: What is the story behind the prints in the upcoming collection?
AD: It was inspired by a Bob Dylan antiwar song, ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door.’ For the show I got together all the versions of the song covered by different musicians. I imagined that Bob Dylan was 20 today – what would he wear to bring the message of the song? I thought of flowers. I could never find the combination of colors that the flowers in my garden have, so my husband suggested that we make a print of them. I cut and dried the flowers, and he photographed them. We then we put the print on fabric.
ER: I sense that this is a bit of newly-found creative freedom for you. Do you feel like you have come to a place in your life that allows you to do that?
AD: Yes. I feel like Ann Demeulemeester as a brand is clearly recognizable by now. The aesthetic is there, and we can now work with color in our own way. It also gives my assistants more freedom. And it surprises people, which is good.
ER: Do you often feel like you know what fabric you need to manifest a certain idea?
AD:Absolutely. And the other way around; we often start with the fabric. First we develop the material, and then we think about finding the perfect shape for it. The material often dictates the design.
ER: What are your favorite fabrics?
AD: I love light, nicely woven wool that can age with time. I like the essence of white cotton. I like silk. We often make our own fabrics, so we start with the basic ones. Then we think of the patterns, the yarn, and the weave. It rarely happens that we find the fabric we need. There are manufacturers who have worked with us for 20 years, and they are willing to listen. It’s a long process, but in the end we have the fabrics that no one else has.
ER: Originally, you designed only for women. How did the menswear come about?
AD:My friends kept asking me, starting with my husband! They would point to a particular garment and ask for a men’s version. I already felt busy with the women’s line, but they convinced me. Now it’s grown into a big collection. I like that there are men and women who can relate to the same aesthetic. It’s not difficult to project the same mood, but the male body is different and so is the work that goes into making men’s garments.
ER: It may seem that you have androgyny in mind.
AD: I don’t consider my clothes androgynous at all. There is tension in human beings between the feminine and the masculine elements, and that is intriguing. I am not saying that I like masculine women or feminine men. I believe these elements are intertwined in everyone. Possessing something aggressive and fragile creates a contrast, and if I succeed in putting that contrast into a garment, it comes to life. Some say that putting a woman in trousers, a vest, and boots is androgynous. I don’t feel that way. I don’t put men in skirts, but I have put men in pink trousers or a jacket with flowers, which are not classic men’s items. I think that fragility in men is beautiful. It’s not for everyone, but I like different men. I always make collections where there is a choice in sensibility, something that my father, my husband, and my son can wear. I try to stay close to human beings. I want to make beautiful and wearable garments.
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Demeulemeester does not feel comfortable making grandiose plans. She would like to do a perfume, if she finds the right partner. “I need to do it my way, because I am not interested in just making anything with my name on it,” she says. “You know those perfume commercials where it’s always the same girl running to the same tree – I don’t want that.”
For now, she is getting ready for the Paris menswear show at the end of June. As we drive to my hotel in her black convertible Saab, she talks in Dutch to her assistants on the car’s speakerphone. For Demeulemeester, “What remains is the future,” as one of her T-shirts reads. “I always say the future is open, and having the impression that anything can happen makes everything exciting. Freedom is the biggest luxury, so I try to make decisions as I go. Hopefully I can still invent a lot of things.”W